Bible moralisée of Naples

Bible moralisée of Naples f. 116v: Announcement of Mary's birth

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f. 116v: Announcement of Mary's birth

“This is the story of how the angel appeared to Joachim and told him that his wife, Saint Anne, was to conceive and ordered him to return to her and as a sign he would find her at the city gate.”

The angel of the Lord also speaks to Joachim who has taken refuge in the desert.
The Golden Legend and earlier apocryphal texts implicitly respected the hierarchy according to which the future head of the family had pre-eminence in moral matters and decisions taken within the couple, be it in Hebrew tradition or Christian society, by saying that Joachim was the first to hear of Mary’s forthcoming birth. The illuminated cycle in the Bible of Naples, however, reverses the expected sequence of images. Consequently, the order Joachim receives from heaven to leave the mountains is situated opposite the reunion at the gold gateway depicted on the next folio (f. 117r), thereby forming a pleasant, dynamic visual diptych within the flow of the narrative.
The scene’s very plain backdrop consists simply of iconographic elements that could be described as generic for the trees barely differ from the bay tree St Anne was shown praying beneath on the previous folio and the rocky hill upon which the trees grow is a larger copy of the hillock on the same folio. This very simple, steep, arid landscape totally lacking in realism is merely intended to convey the idea of a desert, a synonym of a place of spiritual retreat, in comparison with the city life portrayed in the stylised painting on the opposite folio.
After being rebuffed in the temple because of his sterility, Joachim did indeed withdraw to be with his shepherds. He does not want to return home, fearing that the people of his tribe might make the same hurtful insult as the priest. But then an angel appears to him and reassures him because, as we are told in the Golden Legend which repeats the Gospel of the Birth of Mary (chapters 2 and 3) word for word, God is the avenger of sin and not of nature. If he delays a conception it is only to make it subsequently more wonderful, as demonstrated by Sarah and Rachel.
Joachim and the heavenly messenger gesture with their hands to convey the annunciation of the good news. The old man receives the news with his hands outstretched in a gesture of thanks: Anne will soon give birth and her husband must meet her, and their reunion at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem will confirm the miracle.
To simplify his task the illuminator apparently covered the sketch of the sheep with the wash of grey paint intended for the rocks and then went over the outlines of the animals, which can be seen underneath, with brown brush strokes and then added a few white highlights to the fleeces. As in the previous scenes, he painted the trees on the burnished gold ground, causing the coat of paint to peel. The gold base is visible between Joachim’s fingers.

Yves Christe
University of Geneva
Marianne Besseyre
Illuminated Manuscripts Research Center, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Fragment of the Bible moralisée of Naples commentary volume


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